STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - The European Court of Human Rights ruled against Ireland on Thursday for stopping a Lithuanian cancer sufferer from terminating a pregnancy, in a blow to the predominantly Catholic country and its tough abortion laws.
In a final ruling, the rights court found Ireland had not respected the privacy and family rights of the Lithuanian woman, who was living in Ireland and feared a pregnancy could trigger a relapse of her cancer, in remission at the time.
The court, based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, ordered Ireland to pay 15,000 euros ($19,840) in damages to the woman, who was forced to travel to Britain, where the laws are more liberal, to have an abortion.
Terminating a pregnancy has long been a fraught issue in Ireland, where some of the toughest abortion laws in Europe allow terminations only when the mother’s life is in danger.
The European court said Ireland had failed to ensure the Lithuanian woman’s legal right to a termination.
“The Court concluded that neither the medical consultation nor litigation options, relied on by the Irish government, constituted effective and accessible procedures which allowed (her) to establish her right to a lawful abortion in Ireland,” said a statement on the ruling.
Ireland’s health minister said the government would have to introduce a law clarifying when abortion is legal in Ireland. Currently, a woman can have a termination if she has cervical cancer, an ectopic pregnancy or high blood pressure.
“Clearly we have to legislate there is no doubt about that,” Mary Harney told national broadcaster RTE.
But she signaled that it might be up to a new government to introduce the legislation given that a general election is looming next year, possibly in February or March.
“I don’t think we have the capacity to bring forward proposals in a matter of weeks.”
The court rejected appeals by two other women, both Irish, who also had traveled to Britain in 2005 for abortions.
One was an unemployed, former alcoholic who was suffering from depression, living in poverty and trying to recover custody of four children from foster care when she got pregnant. The other did not want to become a single parent and feared an extra-uterine pregnancy.
Ronan McCrea, a law lecturer at Britain’s University of Reading, who has been following the case, said Dublin had been “dragging its feet for decades” on abortion rights, ever since an early-1990s ruling that reopened the debate.
In the so-called “X” case of 1992, Ireland’s Supreme Court overturned a ruling stopping a girl of 14 who had been raped from having an abortion. That prompted two referendums that led to the right to information and to travel for an abortion.
“It’s inexcusable that they haven’t legislated to clarify what this means,” said McCrea.
Backers of the plaintiffs welcomed the European ruling in the case of the Lithuanian women but some expressed regret that the court had not gone further.
Julie Kay, lead legal counsel for the plaintiffs, called the verdict “monumental” and said the European human rights court had recognized that Ireland’s courts had “turned a blind eye” to the problems women had gaining access to abortion services.
The Abortion Support Network, a group that helps women who make the journey over to Britain to end pregnancies, said in a statement it was disappointed that the court had not ruled in favor of the two other women.
“Every week we hear from pregnant women living in Ireland who are in a state of crisis, with no other place to turn,” said Mara Clark, director of the Abortion Support Network.
Between 1980 and end-2009, at least 142,060 women in Ireland traveled for abortion services in Britain, according to the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA).
Women in Catholic Poland also face strict laws. Official statistics show several hundred abortions performed annually but pro-choice campaigners estimate hundreds of thousands are performed underground or abroad, sometimes in poor conditions.
Traditionally Catholic Spain has changed its law making it easier for women to have abortions but some conservative-led regions have refused to allow their hospitals to perform them.
Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Dublin; Writing by Brian Love; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Michael Roddy